Killing in the name of?

Nicky Hager and John Stephenson’s book, Hit & Run, presents compelling evidence that our SAS was responsible for killing at least six Afghani civilians, wounding at least another fifteen, and handing over a man to be tortured for information. And then we were systematically lied to about what was being done in our name. 

Think of a three-year-old girl. Maybe she’s your daughter. Maybe she’s your niece. Maybe she’s your friend’s child. But think of her.

Now think of her screaming in terror as her mother carries her from her home while helicopters pour 30mm exploding cannon shells into it. Then think of her screams ending as a piece of shrapnel from one of those shells smashes through her skull and kills her.

For Nicky Hager and John Stephenson’s book, Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour, tells us in horrifying detail that this is what happened in a small Afghanistani farming village called Khak Khuday Dad early on the morning of 22 August, 2010. What sets this story aside from all the other sad, cruel deaths in that country is this small child – Fatima was her name – died because of us. Or, rather, she died because of the plans and actions of soldiers wearing our flag on their shoulders and our Kiwi on their vehicles.

Desperate to locate and punish those men responsible for an ambush that killed Lt Tim O’Donnell – the first New Zealander to die in Afghanistan – our SAS had latched onto a dubious report that three of their suspects were living in two remote villages. On the word of this one paid informant, our SAS planned and led a “joint mission” to “capture or kill” these targets.

Flown in darkness by helicopter to the edge of Khak Khuday Dad, our SAS soldiers prepared to raid the house of one of the men they wanted to get. At which point, for reasons that are still uncertain, the U.S. Apache helicopter gunships that accompanied our SAS on their raid began firing their cannons into the village.

Thus in Khak Khuday Dad and the nearby Naik village died Fatima and five other civilians; farmers and schoolteachers whose only offence was to be in a place where our SAS thought there may be men they desperately wanted revenge upon. Four of these lives were wiped out by exploding shells fired by helicopter pilots dispassionately viewing glowing silhouettes through infra-red cameras. Two were ended by bullets that there is strong evidence were fired by SAS snipers. None of the dead were the men our SAS set out to find. None of the dead were armed. None of the dead appear to have done anything except farm their fields and train to teach. One of the dead was a three-year-old girl, just like the one you imagined at the start of this story.

And as our SAS boarded their helicopters to leave the scene some two hours later, they left lying on the ground with no help or care fifteen other injured civilians. Six women. Seven children. Their bodies violated by exploding munitions fired by our allies on a mission our SAS planned, manned and ran in all its aspects.

When did these villagers next see the SAS soldiers who had led the raid that tore their lives and homes apart? Some ten days later, when they returned not to help fix that which they had destroyed or heal those that they had harmed, but rather to blow up the villagers’ attempts at rebuilding their damaged houses. Only then was our SAS done with its vengeance on the villages of Khak Khuday Dad and Naik.

These moral crimes – and quite possibly legal crimes, too – form the heart of the charge Hager and Stephenson lay on our collective consciences. (There’s much more in their book as well, like how our SAS handed over one of their targeted suspects to Afghani authorities knowing he would be tortured, then gratefully received back the intelligence “gathered” from him.) But what compounds these wrongs is their aftermath. For rather than provoking an anguished mea culpa from the politicians and military bosses who oversaw our SAS mission, a systemic effort to cover it up swung into effect.

First, the immediate press release in Afghanistan about the mission did not mention New Zealand’s involvement at all. Then, when news we were a part of it came out a year later, the NZ Defence Force released a statement saying that nine “insurgents” had been killed, whilst any claims of civilian deaths had been investigated and disproven. 

However, Hager and Stephenson present strong evidence that very soon after the raid ended the Defence Force had concrete evidence that not only had the raid failed in its objective, but that it had resulted in civilian casualties. Yet their apparent lie was allowed to stand uncorrected right up until Maori Television aired Jon Stephenson’s documentary in 2014 interviewing villagers from Khak Khuday Dad, at which point it was amended to a claim that “no NZ soldier was involved in killing civilians.”

And yet tonight the NZDF, along with the acting defence minister, are reiterating their earlier denials and claiming to "stand by the statement it made dated 20 April 2011" that "the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded". Perhaps they believe the villagers at Khak Khuday Dad imagined Fatima and the others who died with her. Because surely they wouldn't be as foolish as to once again claim that John Stephenson is making up his journalistic accounts, given what happened last time they did so?

So even as tales of our SAS members’ sacrifices and bravery repeatedly were reported in the media, along with copious details of their part in fighting against the “bad guys”, the full story of their culpability remained buried. The narrative remained one of a noble and professional band of warriors steadfastly doing right in Afghanistan, even as others may fall short.

Now we have good reason to think that, as with all myths about heroes, this image isn’t the full picture. Hager and Stephenson convincingly suggest that our SAS became driven by a desire for revenge for a fellow Kiwi and as a result Fatima and five other innocents died. Then rather than confront this wrong, our SAS’s involvement was deliberately hidden through a series of lies and obfuscations.  

Why, then, does any of this matter to us some seven years down the track? It matters first because we don’t yet know the answer to the most important questions: who ordered the U.S. Apache helicopters to fire into Khak Khuday Dad and why? Who fired the sniper shots that appear to have killed two unarmed civilians fleeing the burning village? Those matters require an urgent inquiry, for if it was New Zealand soldiers on the ground who did so, then our SAS actually has directly killed non-combatants. And directly killing non-combatants can be a war crime.

Second, the fact we as a people have been systemically lied to over what our soldiers do in our name is intolerable. Back in 2013, when it was revealed that the Defence Force included investigative journalists on a list of “hostile individuals” that threaten “subversion”, I said this:

If me, or people like me, finding out what it is you are doing in places like Afghanistan mean that the Defence Forces can't do its job, then you shouldn't be in those places in the first place. End of story. And if you can't accept that these are the conditions under which you operate, then you shouldn't be running the show. End of story.

I say that again now. If our SAS must dissemble and lie by omission or commission to those for whom they fight, then it should not be fighting. If military leaders and their political masters are complicit in those lies, then we should follow the German example and require their resignations.

For at a time when our defence forces are asking us to give them some $20 billion from the public purse to upgrade their equipment, it is incumbent on them to prove to us that they deserve it. And the first step they must take in doing so is showing that we can trust them to tell us just what it is that they do in our name.